Ever since Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Presidential nomination in 2016, and more recently with the surprise primary defeat in New York’s 14th Congressional District of establishment icon and incumbent Joe Crowley by upstart Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the electoral shibboleth of “democratic socialism” has suddenly gained serious traction among progressive voters.
It is not that the idea of democratic socialism is anything unprecedented, or even that it’s never been a mainstream enthusiasm among members of the general electorate, whether we are talking about America, Europe, or the rest of the world. It is only that the notion has been out of fashion for approximately the last half century, after having fallen victim to the runaway inflation of the 1970s, which the Reaganites successfully branded as the bitter fruit of “big government” during the Vietnam era, and the collapse of the global Marxist internationale in the early 1990s.
Both Franklin Roosevelt throughout the 1930s and 1940s and Lyndon Johnson during the 1960s fronted for national economic policies and strategies of governmental makeover that even by today’s standards can be considered “democratic socialist.” Social Security and Medicare, controversial and contentious in their early days, are simply incremental iterations of what came to be known as the Sozialstaat in Bismarckian Germany and upon which more expansive calls for single-payer health insurance and free college tuition are logical next steps.
As Meagan Day writing in the liberal publication Vox states flatly, “Democratic socialists share goals with New Deal liberals. But they want to go further.”
Most European countries have been “democratic socialist” in this broad connotation since the Second World War, although ironically the trend has been moving ever so slightly in the opposite direction in recent decades due to global economic pressures and realignments. In certain important respects the call for “democratic socialism” in the United States can be conceived as a return to practices of what Foucault called “governmentality” that were taken for granted by those generations who came of age in the latter part of the twentieth century, but which fell by the wayside out of favor with those who immediately followed them.
From the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 onward, the regnant political rhetoric slowly, but inexorably shifted from a focus on the overarching “public good” to that of the heroic “entrepreneur” and the correlative evils of “social engineering” through centralized political authority. The gist of this changeover was most famously captured in an often repeated quote by Reagan himself: “The most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Consumer Capitalism and Commodified “Self-Culture”
At the same time, the new sentimentality did not coalesce out of thin air. Social historian Christopher Lasch documented this new cultural climate change, as the backstory to the more obvious political transformation in a series of books from from the late Seventies to the mid-Nineties. His best-seller The Culture of Narcissism (1979) singled out among many factors the breakdown of the family in light of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the commodification and consumerization of higher education, and what he called “the therapeutic sensibility” and the “self-culture” that had been spreading like a covert cancer in industrial society during the 1950s and had finally manifested full-blown in the values of what was then a youthful Baby Boomer generation.
His diagnosis was in many respects a psychoanalytical variant of the somewhat more academic variant of Daniel Bell’s sociological take in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, published three years earlier.
Lasch’s blockbuster was followed by The Minimal Self (1984) and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1996), both of which improvised in large measure on the same general motifs. The Culture of Narcissism garnered a National Book Award and became a frame of reference for one of then-President Jimmy Carter’s more notorious speeches, diagnosed a pathology that American society at the time refused to acknowledge.
It maintained, in short, that the postwar normalization of the self-obsessive clinical condition known as “narcissism”, which Freud had many years before identified and named for the first time, was earmarked by a preoccupation with feel-goodness as a new and strange kind of American individualism that had subtly nested within and supplanted an earlier agonistic ethic of the “self-made man.” Conversely and ironically, it went hand in hand with an almost unconscious veneration of “bureaucratic”, as opposed to familial or social, authority as an invisible political apparatus warranting every conceivable private desire, or guaranteeing its satisfaction.
Lasch was a self-professed, old-school “socialist” who prophetically recognized that the “cultural revolution” of the Vietnam period, which raged for over the decade under the banner of “emancipation” and turned the class politics of the past into what Nancy Fraser has termed the “politics of recognition” (what is popularly, but with misleading connotations, often “identity politics”). In the end his views turned dark and pessimistic.
The opening lines of his last work The Revolt of the Elites, published two years after his death in 1994 in the middle of the Clinton years, sounded almost as if it could have been written in 2016.
Americans are much less sanguine about the future than they used to be, and with good reason. The decline of manufacturing and the consequent loss of jobs; the shrinkage of the middle class; the growing number of the poor;…the bad news goes on and on. No one has a plausible solution to these intractable problems, and most of what passes for political discussion doesn’t even address them. Fierce ideological battles are fought over peripheral issues. Elites, who define the issues, have lost touch with the people. The unreal, artificial character of our politics reflects their insulation from the common life, together with a secret conviction that the real problems are insoluble.(3-4)
Meanwhile, theorists like David Harvey were beginning to realize that the same culture of “self” coincided with a rise in economic inequality, the loss of political leverage among the middle classes and the increasing power of predatory capital, first in the Western sphere and then with the end of the Cold War on a planetary scale. Harvey was one of the first to analyze the post-Soviet configuration of global economic and political hegemony as “neoliberalism.”
Writing in 2005, several years before the international financial collapse that resulted in the so-called “Great Recession”, Harvey wrote that “that neoliberalization was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power.” (16) He added: “We can, therefore, interpret neoliberalization either as a utopian project to realize a theoretical design for the reorganization of international capitalism or as a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.” (19)
This “utopian project” of neoliberalism, of course, failed miserably. But one must honestly ask if the new passion for “democratic socialism”, its putative counterfoil, is indeed merely the obverse side of the same coin, a seemingly contrarian “utopian” dreamscape that masks the same neoliberal proclivities.
In the last month or so the prominent, leftist publication Jacobin has published a series of interesting and broad-ranging articles attempting to hone in on the definition of what democratic socialism actually means. The gamut of authors has of course trundled out the familiar laundry list of the emancipation of oppressed social groups or identitarian collectivities. It has also fallen in line with the newest “cosmopolitan” cause of unrestricted immigration and open borders.
But the gravamen of these series of essays amounts to a consistent reference to the notion, famously propounded in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, published in 1875, of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” As Luke Savage writes in a July 13 essay entitled “Bread and Roses for All,” the
socialist struggle, while undoubtedly concerned with securing the necessities of life for all people, is ultimately about something far more precious and hopeful: the flourishing of abundant life in all its complexities and potential. Human beings are not meaningfully free when they have only the basics of survival and the greatest joys and offerings of life — luxuries, music, education, travel — are restricted to a wealthy few.
The feeling-tone, of course, is decidedly utopian, and it consists in an all-too-familiar riff on the historico- canonical texts of socialism in general since the mid-nineteenth century. What indeed makes this readily recognizable meme within the apocalyptic mindset of classical socialist literature distinctive in comparison with the sundry projects of previous “socialist” initiatives, including the British Fabians of the fin de siècle era, that have come and gone like so many mayflies in the limitless expanse of the modernist political imagination?
The answer, to be sure, is that there is not really a significant difference. Contrary to conventional wisdom, socialist inspiration routinely blossoms not during times of great deprivation, but in periods of exorbitant expectation. The present era marked by a global economic turnaround that only recently became evident, regardless of what or who is chiefly responsible, fits that description.
Once and Future “Democratic Socialism”
The last, major revival of the “democratic socialist” vision in America was the late 1960s when the phrase “participatory democracy” was minted. It found something of a nominal champion in the unsuccessful campaign of Senator George McGovern (D-South Dakota) for President against Richard Nixon in 1972, and crystallized as an bona fide political organization under the emblem of the short-lived Citizens Party (not to be confused with the current one with the same name founded by Michael Thompson in 2004), which ran a slate of candidates in the national elections of 1980 and 1984, while receiving less than 1 percent of the vote.
As someone active for a while in that movement, I can say that many of the various essays in Jacobin remind me of the rhetoric from that bygone exercise in grassroots political idealism. The keynote of Citizens Party politics was “economic democracy,” an oratorical cognate for today’s expression “democratic socialism.”
Some examples are declarations by Mathieu Desan and Michael A. McCarthy in an article entitled “A Time to Be Bold” in the most recent of the Jacobin collection. “Moving towards socialism involves subordinating the economic power of capitalists to the social power of the people.” Politics should be not about the negotiation of economic interests, but of mobilizing an almost evangelical commitment to a shared common purpose.”
In addition to the conviction that “everyone, regardless of their circumstances, deserves to flourish,” the authors invoke what they consider the most compelling of socialist tenets, “the principle of solidarity”. They write:
Socialists believe that people should care about and care for each other. Capitalist markets, on the other hand, divide. We think the principle of solidarity should be at the core of any good society. A socialist vision of emancipation is one where our institutions help us care about and for each other.
The democratic socialists insist that they do not resemble in any manner of speaking the Soviet Union of yesteryear. In fact, they claim to be against state management of the political apparatus and its command of economic resources. They assume that a new ethic of caring and sharing will percolate upwards from the innate compassion and positive intentions of grassroots democratic collectives.
Socialism and the State
But a simple question looms quite large – can you have anything resembling “socialism” without a strong and centralized state? One of the key functions of the state throughout the centuries has been to use its capacity for coercion to mobilize both material and human resources for large-scale collective purposes. And the history of “socialist” revolutions in more recent history, where initial democratic aspirations were immediately crushed by authoritarian, or totalitarian, systems of control tends to support the view that stateless, or weak-state, socialism is an oxymoron.
Joseph Schwartz contends that this irony can be traced to the fact every major “socialist” revolution in the last century (and even in this century when one considers certain “failed states” such as Venezuela) has erupted in predominantly agricultural, not industrial, societies. Marx’s own theories of historical materialism required the opposite.
Schwartz maintains that such revolutions merely replaced feudal landlords and warlords with a new comparable oligarchy of party apparatchiks spouting “socialist” ideology. “For students of history”, Schwartz writes, “the question should be not whether socialism necessarily leads to dictatorship, but whether a revived socialist movement can overcome the oligarchic and antidemocratic nature of capitalism.”
But both Schwartz and contemporary advocates for “democratic socialism” overlook a formidable challenge, or battery of obstacles, that bar the way to the national, not to mention international, stateless or “state-lite” system of social organization that would distribute “each” according to their needs and abilities that both classical Marxism and present day political radicals have projected as the would-be “end game” of their epochal anti-capitalist insurgency.
That, of course, comes down to the very principle of “solidarism” that Desan and McCarthy tout as the galvanizing force of their proclaimed new Democratic Socialist Internationale. Any student of political history well understands the quintessential importance of solidarism for any successful movement. But the sense of “solidarity” in any communal configuration is not created ex nihilo.
The given political protocols for mass mobilization in any historical situation are derived entirely from a plan for the transformation of deeply embedded social values and loyalties, which in some instances have persisted for centuries, but which in global market economies, or at least the broad contemporary post-industrial cultural consensus that has come to be known as “neoliberalism”, have been methodically annihilated – or in Thomas H. Eriksen’s well-known phrase “disembedded” – by internationalized consumer capitalism.
The immediate turn to political authoritarianism and state-based hegemony in the early stages of past “socialist” insurgencies was the inevitable outcome of the “vanguard” revolutionaries suddenly confronted with the choice of allowing what Pierre Bourdieu calls the habitus of the old society to persist, thus slowly eroding and undermining any enthusiasm for the new order, or force people to change by calculated, strong-arm tactics. Almost invariably they decided on the latter.
If democratic socialism, as its proponents swear, must be driven mutatis mutandis by the “soft-power” of persuasion and consent-building, the process must of necessity begin with consideration of what Adam Smith and so many philosophers of the European Enlightenment called “the natural sympathies” of human beings toward each other.
What “Natural Sympathies”?
But, as various critics of neoliberalism from Bourdieu himself to German sociologist Wolfgang Streeck have highlighted, such innate “sympathies” have long been extinguished by global consumer capitalism.
On the contrary, as I myself strenuously dissect in a forthcoming book Killing Us Softly: The Deep Political Theology of Neoliberalism, global post-industrial capitalism has triumphantly inscribed its own political, cultural, and what is left of anything akin to a “social” order by ruthlessly leveraging the logic of an open-ended “differentialism” to maximize personal consumption.
The implementation of such a logic has not only atomized everything produced for the world market into overdetermined, craftily packaged, merchandized, and competitive (albeit basically comparable) “brand names”, but managed to commodify the concept of the political itself by fomenting, cultivating, accentuating, and institutionalizing rivalries between different ethnic, linguistic, religious, racial, gender, or historic socio-cultural groupings through highly refined theoretical strategies – i.e., “identity politics”.
In effect, identity politics is little more than a form of political consumerism aimed at the professional, college-educated “knowledge classes” in order to extort their more progressive sympathies and personal resentments to win elections that benefit those already ensconced in power.
The populist blowback in many Western countries, which manifested in 2016, and which continues to be stoked by the vitriolic rhetoric of elite “resistance” to what are in reality semiotically constructed and cartoonish politico-cultural enemies most familiarly known as “rednecks” or more recently as “Trump followers”, has been centered within the working classes themselves, who are not always as “white” as many academics presume. It is these same very working classes that the new democratic socialists claim to speak for, all the while having to share the stage – and often the polemics and the cultural prejudices – of the identitarian propagandists.
Any feasible project of democratic socialism must begin from below, and it must rigorously divest itself of its acquired penchant for demonizing working class people for their presumed cultural insensitivity, moral inflexibility, and political backwardness (a stereotype that more often than not fails to pan out empirically), all the while claiming to speak for their “real” interests. That has been the consistent and unflagging message of progressive political analyst and journalist Thomas Frank in such best-selling books as What’s the Matter With Kansas? and Listen, Liberal.
Whether the new “democratic socialists” will ever learn these lessons, since they certainly did not in the 1970s, is open to conjecture. Ideological pride and class blindness have afflicted and brought down revolutionary movements throughout modern history.
Otherwise, we will witness one more iteration of Alphonse Karr’s famous quip that “the more things change, the more they remain the same.”
Carl Raschke is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver, specializing in Continental philosophy, art theory, the philosophy of religion and the theory of religion. He is an internationally known writer and academic, who has authored numerous books and hundreds of articles on topics ranging from postmodernism to popular religion and culture to technology and society. Recent books include Postmodern Theology: A Biopic (Cascade Books, 2017), Critical Theology: An Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis (IVP Academic, 2016), Force of God: Political Theology and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2015) and The Revolution in Religious Theory: Toward a Semiotics of the Event (University of Virginia Press, 2012). He is also Consulting Editor for The New Polis.